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Tuesday, February 13, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Deal moves InfoSpace into mobile search

Seattle Times technology reporter

Less than five months ago, InfoSpace said it was no longer investing in the business of selling ringtones and other content for cellphones.

The Bellevue company had just lost one of its largest customers and as a result, laid off more than a third of employees worldwide.

Its fallback was to focus on its online search properties, such as the Dogpile search engine.

But this week, InfoSpace finds itself at the largest wireless conference in the world with a renewed interest in the mobile business.

It is announcing today a partnership with Fast Search & Transfer, a publicly traded company in Oslo, Norway, that specializes in online and mobile search technology.

Together, InfoSpace and Fast intend to develop a mobile search service to sell to wireless carriers.

The announcement is being made at 3GSM World Congress, which has drawn more than 60,000 attendees to Barcelona, Spain.

Already at the show, Microsoft unveiled a new version of its mobile operating system.

And Seattle-based Tegic Communications, an AOL company, is showing off a music player and a new way to search for features and content on a phone.

Other Seattle-area companies making announcements or attending are SNAPin, Volantis, SinglePoint, Vidiator, Qpass, Intrinsyc, RadioFrame Networks, T-Mobile USA, Medio Systems and Action Engine.

The mobile search area is undeniably a bright spot for the industry and is expected to be a hot topic in Barcelona, where a closed-door meeting among some of Europe's biggest wireless carriers and AT&T, formerly Cingular Wireless, is expected to discuss development of a search engine that could challenge Yahoo! and Google.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that Vodafone, France Telecom, Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom, Hutchison Whampoa, Telecom Italia and Cingular are among the companies that will hold talks.

Their goal is to retain a larger portion of mobile revenue by leveraging their combined 600 million subscribers.

In doing so, they would create their own branded service and use a single advertising-sales house and technical team.

That's where InfoSpace could play a role, said Brendan Benzing, its vice president of mobile search and platforms.

InfoSpace, which partners with wireless carriers for a number of technologies, allows them to use their own brand on InfoSpace-developed products. It also hopes to stand out from the smaller wireless startups that may have less online expertise.

In developing mobile search technology, InfoSpace hopes to use experience from its online search properties and meld it with its mobile expertise.

Finding information on the Internet versus on wireless networks is vastly different.

With wireless, carriers own the networks, and users generally are constrained by smaller keyboards and screens.

Even user intent differs.

Do users want to search content on the Web or content provided by the carrier, such as ringtones or graphics? Or do they want information based on their location, such as the nearest ATM or restaurant?

Benzing said InfoSpace and Fast will give carriers more control over their content business models.

Fast's expertise has been in selling software to the carrier, which then operates it in-house. It launched Vodafone's first search engine in 2003.

InfoSpace plans to take the lead in the partnership by merging the technologies of both companies to sell a service InfoSpace would manage.

"I think it [the meeting by the wireless carriers at 3GSM] sheds light on the fact that it's still a market that's being made. Some small deals have been struck, but there's a lot to be done, and the market is going to be huge," said Michael Brady, Fast's senior director of business development.

"There's so much to gain in this space; it doesn't make sense to work blindly with a third-party branded solution when they have so many options, " he said.

In other 3GSM news:

• Bellevue-based Vidiator, which develops technology for streaming media on mobile networks, said it has signed Ibertelco, a Portuguese supplier of broadcast and professional video equipment, as an authorized reseller of its products.

• Seattle-based Qpass, a division of Amdocs, said its customer-management software has processed more than $2 billion worth of content on mobile phones.

That represents more than 730 million transactions since 2003 and an increase of more than $500 million since October.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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